QUETTA: Hundreds of fans gathered at a hockey ground in the southwestern city of Quetta this week to watch a game of buzkashi, Afghanistan’s national sport — a test of horse-riding skills and warrior spirit imported to Pakistan by refugees from the neighboring country over four decades ago.
Buzkashi, which translates roughly as “goat pulling,” has been played for centuries across Central Asia, handed down from the time of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol empire, in the 13th century.
Buzkashi players from the Khurasan and Arayana clubs seen on their horses at Quetta’s Hockey Ground on March 11, 2022. (AN photo)
In the game’s original version, the live body of a defeated enemy was used as the ball, historians say.
Today, however, teams win points by throwing a headless goat or calf carcass into the scoring area. The animal is slaughtered the previous night and filled with sand, sewn up and soaked in water to make it heavy.
So popular is the game in Afghanistan that it has lived on amid foreign invasions, civil wars, militant attacks and now the return of Taliban rule, with thousands of Afghans gathering to cheer on their favorite riders.
In Pakistan’s Balochistan province, which shares a border with Afghanistan and is home to almost 800,000 Afghan refugees, buzkashi has always been a crowd-puller. In spring, games are a regular feature of community entertainment.
On Friday, the match between two local clubs was played out in a square hockey ground under the craggy mountains that overlook Quetta, the provincial capital.
A Buzkashi player on his white horse at Quetta’s Hockey Ground on March 11, 2022. (AN photo)
More than a dozen horsemen, many wearing traditional Uzbek hats and robes, fought for control of the goat carcass as the crowd cheered loudly.
The match was organized by the Balochistan government’s sports department “in connection with Pak-Afghan friendship,” according to the sports ministry.
Buzkashi was banned in Afghanistan under the harsh fundamentalist rule imposed by the Taliban in the 1990s. However, players returned to the buzkashi grounds after the US invasion in 2001.
Following US withdrawal last year, there were fears the Taliban would renew its ban on the sport, but national league matches resumed on Feb. 24 for the first time since the militants took control last August.
Buzkashi players from the Khurasan and Arayana clubs seen on horses at Quetta’s Hockey Ground on March 11, 2022. (AN photo)
Zabihullah, 21, a spectator at the Quetta match, said buzkashi was a “tradition of my forefathers” who migrated to Quetta from Kunduz province in Afghanistan.
“Today my uncle has been participating in the event as a player, so I have come here to cheer for him.” Zabihullah said, adding that he hoped the authorities would promote the sport in other Pakistani provinces also.
“We want the government to organize a buzkashi match between Afghan and Pakistani players,” he said.
Ghaffar Pehalwan, 60, the only Pakistan national in Balochistan who plays buzkashi, told Arab News the game is as famous in Afghanistan as cricket is in Pakistan.
“When the Afghan refugees came to Pakistan, they introduced this sport in Quetta back in the 1990s,” Pehalwan said on the sidelines of Friday’s game after celebrating his team’s win.
“I used to ride my own stallion in Quetta, and started watching and practicing buzkashi with Afghan nationals.”
Sahibzada Rafiuddin, joint secretary of the Pakistan Buzkashi Association, said buzkashi events in the country would strengthen relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as the Central Asian region.
“We don’t have a permanent ground for buzkashi, but we have been organizing events to encourage players,” he said. “The association wants to attract Pakistani nationals to start playing this historic Afghan sport.”
As Friday’s match wound down, the faces of the winning players glowed. The best part comes now, they said, when the bedraggled goat is roasted and the team enjoys a feast.